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The Girl Scout Gold Award proves what a good imagination can do!

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image At 17, Kaitlyn Arruda has already changed her community for the better through projects that earned her awards. Photo Penny Fletcher

From her early days in scouting as a Daisy, Brownie, and then Girl Scout, Kaitlyn has earned her badges and awards through helping her community.

BY PENNY FLETCHER

At 16, Kaitlyn Arruda built a serenity garden for women coming out of abusive relationships. After that, she learned to sew so she could make 100 carry-bags for people at a local assisted living facility who must use walkers to get around. 

Now 17, she’s doing a project that will aid veterans dealing with trauma.

From her early days in scouting as a Daisy, Brownie, and then Girl Scout, Kaitlyn has earned her badges and awards through helping her community.

As a member of Girl Scout Troop 508 which is partly Hillsborough County and partly Manatee, she is working on the top award Girl Scouting can give her: The Gold Award, by planning and building a fire pit at My Warrior’s Place in Ruskin.

The Apollo Beach resident is in her junior year at East Bay High School and has been active there as well.

“She was on the Steering Committee in both her freshman and sophomore years and has been active with Relay for Life for three years. This year she was a Team Captian,” said her mother, Cyndee Arruda. Kaitlyn’s main interest, however, has always been in scouting and the things she learns there.

According to Jennifer Mederios, the public relations and media manager for the Girl Scout Council of West Central Florida based in Tampa, strict and lengthy criteria is used to determine the awards she has earned and is working to earn now.

“There are certain amounts of hours they must put into each project, and it must show advocacy and leadership,” she said. “Typically the projects are connected both locally and globally.”

Mederios cited as an example Jamila Blake of Tampa who held fundraisers and started a local club at her high school to call attention to crimes against children in Uganda. Later this was turned into the Global Outreach Club at her high school to help what are referred to as “the invisible children” living under terrible conditions in that country and eventually a speaker from that country came to talk about it with them first-hand.

“The projects these girls do really teach them to improve both their communities and the world,” Mederios added.

“The Girl Scout Gold Award is the highest award in Girl Scouting,” she continued. “A Girl Scout must be in at least ninth grade, a registered Girl Scout Senior or Ambassador, and successfully complete certain requirements before she begins working on her Gold Award project. Girl Scouts spend a minimum of 80 hours planning and implementing their Gold Award projects. These projects are girl-led, with guidance provided by a specialized project advisor, and emphasize leadership, advocacy, and sustainability. The Girl Scout Gold Award is a dramatic example of how Girl Scouts’ all-girl setting offers girls exceptional experiences so they can make a lasting difference in the local community, region, or beyond – both now and in the future. Notably, a Girl Scout who has earned her Gold Award immediately rises one rank in any of the U.S. military branches and is eligible for a number of scholarships.”

Kaitlyn’s Bronze Award in 2008 was for making a serenity garden for women using Ruskin’s Mary and Martha House shelter for abused and homeless women and their children. She also did other things to raise awareness of domestic abuse.

Then came the project that earned her the Silver Award in 2010. That took her seven months, her mother said.

“She enlisted the help of the Sun City Center Sew 'n Sews who taught her how to sew. After that she made 100 carry-bags and gave them out at an assisted living facility,” said Cyndee Arruda.

In 2012, a mutual friend introduced Kaitlyn to Kelly Kowall, president and founder of the newly formed My Warrior’s Place in Ruskin that was featured in the Observer News and The Current May 17, 2012.

My Warrior’s Place is a retreat center that offers support, training, a relaxed setting and in some cases temporary housing, to military service veterans and families who have lost a loved one who was in the service of their country.

Kelly founded the retreat after the death of her son in 2009. Spec. Corey Kowall, 20, was a medic in Afghanistan with Alpha Company, Second Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment in the Fourth Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

His interest in past wars earned him the nickname “Corregidor” from his grandfather – after the small rocky island in Manila Bay in the Philippines.

Once Kaitlyn met Kelly and saw the work she was doing, she immediately gravitated to “Eyes on the Skies, Project Corregidor,” named for Corey. It is one of many things going on at My Warrior’s Place, and deals directly with helping veterans and their families process their grief.

The focus of Kaityln’s project, as explained in a letter to the Girl Scout Council asking for approval to use it towards her Gold Award, is to bring awareness to the high rate of suicides, divorce, domestic violence, and drug and alcohol abuse that surviving soldiers returning home to civilian life may encounter as a result of experiencing the loss of fellow soldiers during deployment.

She is in the process of presenting talks and brochures to local service and military-connected organizations and is implementing a sustainable memorial brick program to raise funds that will be used for retreat upkeep, purchasing materials, and a possible sponsorship program.

“We’ve gotten a lot of community support for this project,” said Kowall. “People want to do more than just say ‘thank you for your service’ and this gives them a chance to do it.”

There is so much to do at the new retreat center, where vets can go for a few hours or days, whatever they need to help heal, she added.

Kaitlyn submitted her idea for her Gold Award project to the Girl Scout Council in November. It included detailed plans to build and pay for a brick fire pit where veterans can sit around the fire overlooking the Little Manatee River and relax, fish and talk. 

Kowall said she hopes someone will take on the project of building a wood deck near the fire pit because there is a special memorial planned that they will eventually be able to see from that spot.

“Everyone likes to sit around a fire. The veterans have said they would really enjoy this,” Kowall said. “I want to have a unique memorial near the fire pit. I have checked very thoroughly and don’t think there is a memorial anywhere in Florida dedicated to those who have died while in the service that did not die in combat. This memorial would be for anyone who has died for any reason while enlisted in the service of our country.”

Besides just being a cozy place to sit and talk, the fire circle will be used at the end of therapy sessions where the veterans and their families symbolically let go of the causes of their grief and allow them to continue their lives with the healthy therapies they will learn in the week long seminars, Kaitlyn said in her explanatory letter to the Council.

The circle is planned to be eight feet in diameter and will accommodate 8-to-10 people at a time. The budget for the project is $2,276.19, she said.

Donations of memorial bricks may be purchased online at www.mywarriorsplace.org.

“We’ll have to dig the hole and use regular bricks to begin and then replace them with memorial bricks as they come in,” Kaitlyn said.

Monetary and labor donations are also needed, she said.

“I am so grateful Kaitlyn chose our place for her project,” said Kowall. “We have only been open a short time and I can already see the impact it has made on the veterans and families who have come here.”

Not only do people come from afar and stay a few days for the talks and relaxation and sharing, but local people often go by for just a few hours when they feel especially down and out.

“One man from Riverview, for example,” Kowall said, “comes by for a couple of hours several times a week. He said he used to just go into his room alone when he started feeling his grief but now he has a place to go that helps him deal with it.” 

People who want to help Kaitlyn with her Gold Award project – or help My Warrior’s Place with another project- may visit My Warrior’s Place at 101 22nd St. N.W., Ruskin or contact the organization through the website listed above.

“By taking action to raise sustainable awareness of Project Corregidor, Kaitlyn is bringing to light an issue that affects not only soldiers in our local communities but around the world.” Medeiros said. “As she moves closer toward earning her Girl Scout Gold Award, we can’t wait to see the lasting impact that her leadership will inspire.”

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